While the NFL has changed its game plan to adapt to the spread offense to a degree, there's a new schism affecting several teams and making interior defensive linemen among the most valuable members of many rosters.
With more and more pro teams switching to the 3-4 defense, college defenders are hitting a speedbump in the evaluation process. According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, only three of the 120 BCS teams -- Alabama, Virginia, and Cal -- play full 3-4 schemes as their base. As a result, personnel guys like general manager Scot McCloughan of the San Francisco 49ers, who first made me aware of the spread offense issue during an earlier Combine, have to adjust their eyes when grading the potential of 3-4 converts.
"There's a bigger chance that you're wrong than you're right," McCloughan said just after his press conference today, "because you're not seeing them play the position at our level." Earlier, he spoke about the importance placed in nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, which compelled the Niners to franchise Franklin for a guaranteed amount of $7.003 million in 2010.
"I think a lot of people say you’re looking for a guy with power, (who can) play at the point, take on the double team and just do the dirty work all day," McCloughan said. "The thing I’ve realized the last couple of years is the instincts, the blocking instincts. Because you’re not going to be dynamic. If you are, there are two or three in the league. You’re taking care of your linebackers, letting them make the plays they’re supposed to make. That’s the thing with Aubrayo – his instincts for understanding blocking schemes is phenomenal. He’s not the most talented physically. But when you throw the mental (approach) in, that’s why he’s a good football player."
Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, having just signed nose tackle Casey Hampton to a three-year, $21.2 million deal in order to solidify his team's always-strong 3-4, would agree with McCloughan's laundry list of assets. "In our case, Casey Hampton was the anchor of our defense and has been. Defensive linemen in general are tough to find, especially for 3-4 defenses. This draft, there are more defensive linemen than any draft I can remember in really 26 years I’ve been doing this. It's not only depth but the quality of that depth as well."
But of those quality defensive tackles, only three -- Alabama's Terrence Cody, Dan Williams of Tennessee and North Carolina's Cam Thomas -- project as obvious 3-4 nose tackles, because of their size and specific abilities. Beyond that, Rang said, it's a guessing game. "Williams (6-2, 329) and Thomas (6-4, 331) project very nicely as nose guards, despite the fact that each played in the 4-3 in college. Each possesses the bulk necessary to take up blockers in the two gap scheme, freeing up the linebackers to make plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cal’s Tyson Alualu played defensive end out of the odd man front, but the 6-2, 291 pounder projects best inside as a three-technique defensive tackle in the more traditional 4-3 scheme. While strong, Alaalu’s greatest asset is his quickness and hustle. Rather than holding up at the point, he’s at his best tracking down the ball carrier – as his stellar production in the Pac-10 proves."
So even when the NFL does find a committed 3-4 lineman of any stripe, that lineman may not translate at the next level. What, I asked McCloughan, makes the ideal 3-4 end pop off the tape? He started with what doesn't. "If you've got a 6-1, 300-pound defensive tackle, even if he's a great player, he's sure not going to be a nose tackle in a 3-4. And you're not going to put him at end, because he doesn't have the length to hold the point against tackles. So, all of a sudden, he becomes a non-factor -- a good football player who doesn't fit your system."
And when it comes to those 3-4 ends, McCloughan says that the requirements for success are just as specific. "Height, arm length, and the ability to hold the point. If they have some pass rush, that's great, but they have to do the grunt work and hold up (the line). If your defensive end is too good rushing the passer, you go to a 4-3."
And if you want pass rush in a 3-4, as opposed to the 4-3 hybrids most 3-4 teams run on occasion (where the linebacker with the most pass rush ability will put his hand on the ground and turn one of the ends into a tackle), you're looking at more speed and much less weight. Teams will adjust, especially in obvious passing situations, but the basics stay the same -- if those ends can't hold up against big inside blockers, they're wasted in the more prevalent scheme. This leaves a limited pool of specific types for an ever-increasing number of teams with a great desire for their services.
New Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey, whose team will switch to the 3-4 this season, may have summed up the search best today. Everybody’s looking for a certain type of guy, those of us in the 3-4, and there’s not a lot of ‘em to be perfectly honest. So you have to take people you have and adapt the way you play. You don’t have to play the same type of 3-4; you can adjust to what people do best."
If the draft process had a motto as it applied to NFL personnel men, it might be, "Adopt, Adapt, and Improve." The odds of getting exactly what you want are limited, so you must alter your expectations. This is what the NFL, in its newly shotgun-heavy incarnation, has done with the spread offense. This is also what the NFL will have to do with players who can somehow find a shoehorn into one of many 3-4 defenses.